Catholic Women’s Stories of “Religious Freedom”

March 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Since the end of January, there has been an enormous amount said and written about the Obama administration’s refusal to expand the conscience exemption from the HHS contraception mandate. Archbishop Timothy Dolan got things rolling by calling the decision a “line in the sand”; more recently, we have the spectacle of Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown law student a prostitute for supporting the mandate.

One thing that has struck me forcefully in the midst of all this is the difference between the way many commentators spoke about the mandate and the way a number of Catholic women did. Again and again journalists and commentators discussed the mandate without so much as referring to women. Mark Shields and David Brooks get the award: they managed to talk about the issue two weeks in a row on the PBS News Hour without uttering the word “women.” But very many of their confrere’s came in a close second : “It’s not about contraceptives,” they kept saying. “It’s about religious freedom.”

I will restrain myself from going on a tear here about the importance of being able to hold two thoughts in one’s head at the same time. God forbid that the controversy should be about religious freedom and contraception. Instead, I am preoccupied by the fact that while the in-almost-all-cases white male spokespersons and commentators were talking about “religious freedom,” Catholic women were telling stories.

Some of the stories appeared in newspapers, for example, in Gail Collins’s NY Times article, “Tales from the Kitchen Table”:

“When I was first married, my mother-in-law sat down at her kitchen table and told me about the day she went to confession and told the priest that she and her husband were using birth control. She had several young children, times were difficult — really, she could have produced a list of reasons longer than your arm.

‘You’re no better than a whore on the street,” said the priest.”

But even more of these stories took the form of on-line comments in response to articles about the contraceptives controversy. Occasionally, they had a better ending than Collins’s; one woman reported that when she told a priest in confession that she was using contraceptives after having four kids in her first four years of marriage, the priest responded that she should follow her conscience and not let anyone tell her anything different. But most of the stories were pretty miserable.

I have been so moved by this contemporary application of “the personal is political” that I am going to conclude my post with a story of my own. It has to do with my late father, Joe Ronan.

Born in 1917, my father lost his mother to heart disease when he was nine; soon after his father disappeared, leaving him to be raised by two unmarried aunts and his older sister, Julia. Julia married in the 1930s; after the birth of her fourth child, the doctor told her she should not have any more. When Dad returned on leave from the Pacific in 1942 and knocked on the front door of the house he and Julia had grown up in, where she was now raising her family, a stranger answered. He said that Julia was dead, and the family had moved back to the West End. She had died giving birth to her fifth child. Somehow, Daddy never got the news.

But the story doesn’t end there. My mother wanted to name me Julia, after Dad’s sister, but my father wouldn’t have it; it would bring me bad luck, he believed. In effect, I am the non-Julia. And while the Irish were a distinctly homosocial lot–the women in one room and the men in the other–I have always believed that another reason my father hardly spoke to me after I started wearing skirts is that he really believed that I, like all the other Ronan women, might die at any moment.

The pill didn’t exist until after Julia’s death, of course. But contraceptives were part of medical school curricula by that that time, and it was legal for doctors to share information about contraception. Whether a second generation Irish Catholic immigrant like Julia would have dared ask is another matter.

The controversy is indeed about contraceptives, fellas, and about the freedom of Catholic and other women to use them if they choose to.

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  1. Marian– what a powerful post. The controversy is about power and who gets to have “control”– the Repubs and the old-line church types have identified an issue that in the name of “ethics” they can use to assert authority over others. I don’t think it’s much more complex than that. They have come up with a rubric that permits them to assert their authority over third parties and claim a strong moral justification for doing so. Really, the rhetoric isn’t much different than slave-owners, national-socialists, bigots of all sorts have used historically: identify some issue that allows the speaker or the group to assert hegemony based on some identified moral values and claimed failings that are unique to the class being attacked and, of course, such failings are by definition absent from the speaker (race as to Africans; ethnicity as to Jews, “alien” status as to immigrants, sex as to women, etc.), and use the position of authority the speaker has obtained to prosecute the case and enhance the speaker’s power (i.e., this issue is “too important to be left to individuals to decide,” only the speaker and his group can save us from this threat….. so their power must be enhanced). This particular instance is also typical of the other examples in that the controlling parties “benefit” from the relationship (slaveowners as to slavery, men as to sex) and therefore need to point to some “moral” code to be able to justify their assertion of control (saying, “we like the benefits of this relationship” seems too direct and easy). Among the many sad elements of this particular instance is that the “moral argument” against contraceptives has been overwhelmingly rejected by all but these politicians and the old-line church types. (By the way, this whole controversy is yet another good reason that the employer-based benefits system in the U.S. should be revised. If their were a single-payer system or a robust private market for health insurance coupled with a tax system that would accommodate such, this entire discussion would be by the board. Imagine an employer being able to object to what employees do with their pay (we don’t approve of gambling or watching porn or drinking on national holidays)….)

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  2. I agree with you entirely, Joseph. Especially the part about the whole problem being resolved by universal health care. But don’t hold your breath on that. The 30% of Republicans who earn less that $30,000 a year must just enjoy sitting for hours in the emergency room.

    Incidentally–think you might also find the post powerful because Julia was your aunt too?

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  3. Marian, thanks so much for telling your family stories and Joseph, for making a different political point from most male commentators. It all brings tears to my eyes. Regina

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